BLM Rangers and members of the public greeting each other at a lake.
BLM rangers talk with public land visitors in Idaho.  (Randy Hayes/BLM) 

A State Director’s Perspective on Law Enforcement in the Early Days

By Ed Spang

Law enforcement in the BLM?  That was the reaction of many.  I shared this same concern initially.  However, by the 1980s, the law enforcement program was established.  In the beginning, some BLM states had to start the program with only the new program name.  The BLM recruited nationwide for personnel with experience or an interest in enforcement.  So now that the BLM had a law enforcement program, how should we implement it?

Although I was supportive of the program, I was quite conservative about the implementation plans being considered in the BLM.  There were many interpretations and feelings as to why the BLM needed to be in the enforcement business in the first place.  I envisioned the program as being heavy in public relations and preventive activities.  Of course, all that changed rather quickly as the BLM responded to intensified management needs.  The BLM had uniforms, weapons, special training, and organizational structure, and was on a rather fast learning curve—both within and outside the agency.  Concerns were being raised by the public, state and local governments, federal agencies, and various interests.  Authorities and jurisdictional issues were being raised and challenged.  Resolution of these concerns required a lot of coordination and personal relationship building, particularly between BLM and some western counties.

Today the law enforcement program consists of special agents, rangers, supervisors, managers, and activity specialists.  The law enforcement program required this level of involvement.  Training programs were developed and targeted for specific levels within the organization.  There had to be an integrated understanding among all activities involved, including administration.  To accomplish this, another important step was required, which was to include and identify law enforcement needs and support throughout the planning process.  Enforcement could no longer be an “afterthought.”

Several programs and activities played a significant role in the development of the BLM’s law enforcement program.  They include Lower Colorado River management, the Sagebrush Rebellion, the wild horse and burro program, unauthorized uses on public lands, the Alaska pipeline, and coordination with state and local entities.

A ranger who had been a range conservationist once told me that when he got up in the morning, got dressed in his ranger uniform, put on all his hardware, and then looked into the mirror, he saw a different person.  The sense of responsibility and expectation was great.  Law enforcement is critical in the BLM today.  It is a program of which I have been and still am a devoted supporter.

Ed Spang began his career as a range conservationist in Montana and held positions in six states, the Washington Office, and Nigeria, Africa (PASA).  He served as state director in Nevada and Alaska from 1980–1994 and is now retired.